The Bulls aren't likely to finish the season on a ten game win streak after facing Portland tonight, but they will be solid favorites against at least eight of the the ten opponents left and probably pushes (at worst) against Minnesota and Washington on the road. Tonight marks their final test against one of the best teams in the league as the Bulls host the Portland Trailblazers.
Don't be fooled by the Blazers slump
Someone is sure to point out that the Blazers have lost eight of their last 12 games, however, the stretch is someone misleading because LaMarcus Aldridge sat out seven of those 12 games, and the losses they had while he played were road games against Dallas, Houston, Memphis, and San Antonio.
That's not to say the Blazers are kicking ass and taking names, but Aldridge will be back against the Bulls, and their losses were road losses to other elite teams or games where their best player sat out. Aldridge returned last night against Atlanta to score 25 points and grab 16 boards in 32 minutes.
The Blazers are in a fairly desperate situation after their recent nose dive. They're presently fifth in the West, but just 2.5 games ahead of Dallas who sits in ninth. They're fighting for both home court advantage in the first round and to even make the playoffs at all. They'll be coming out hard.
What is Chicago fighting for?
The Bulls will keep fighting to win every game possible, because, well, they're the Bulls. It's what they do.
As a sports fan you love that.
However, Chicago's situation isn't so dire. One could argue that the Bulls would be better suited to 4th place than 3rd in the East anyway. Indiana looks like a team the Bulls would actually stand a chance at defeating if they were matched up in round two.
That said, Brooklyn seems like a much tougher first round match up than Washington, and Chicago's no lock to get past the Nets. That series is a 50/50 at best for Chicago, and I'd wager many vegas odds makers will put their money on the Nets.
Getting the three seed for Chicago is mostly about avoiding Brooklyn. Of course, Indiana's also no lock for the #1 seed just yet, but Miami has never pushed hard for seeding in the big three era and tends to always fade down the stretch of the regular season before putting it into playoff gear.
Seriously, can we start Taj Gibson already?
Honestly, if I had one key to the game, it'd be, bring Carlos Boozer off the bench. However, we already know that isn't happening.
LaMarcus Aldridge is the focus of the Blazers offense, and I'd rather have Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah both on the floor while Aldridge is so that the Bulls can play some semblance of defense against him.
The Bulls will hopefully stick Noah on him initially rather than Boozer, but that then leaves the Bulls without any help defense in the middle when Aldridge is hanging out on the perimeter which he's likely to do for the majority of the possessions. If Chicago could match up with Taj on him right away things would go a bit better.
I'd say there's a good chance the Bulls get killed in the first and third quarters due to this, so the best we can hope for is some early foul trouble for Boozer or a quick hook.
Beyond the problems covering Aldridge, the Bulls also frequently struggle with quick point guards and tend to get eaten up by quickness more so than size in terms of perimeter players. Kirk Hinrich's craftiness tends to work a lot better on guys who are bigger than him where the grabbing, pulling, and bumping isn't quite so noticeable and when he's less likely to get blown up by sheer athleticism.
Chicago will need to find a strategy to deal with Damien Lillard and which really gets back to keeping Taj/Noah on the floor as much as possible so that when one guy is D'ing up Aldridge there's still an elite help defender at the basket.
If the Bulls can find a way to contain Lillard and Aldridge then the only other step on defense will be to adequately defend the three point line.
The Bulls offense will likely come down to the same things it always does. Will guys hit shots? The Bulls don't really have a great leg to stand on when it comes to generating efficient offense. They're unselfish, they move/share the ball frequently, and they hope with all the passing that eventually good looks materialize.
They typically do, but those good looks are also typically threes, and the Bulls still don't have much in terms of quality or consistency from beyond the arc. Hinrich, Augustin, and Dunleavy are the most reliable and are at least all decent from beyond the arc, but if they get a decent shooting night out of Butler or Snell then it can really turn things.
I'm still a proponent of seeing what Jimmer Fredette can do, especially relative to Snell, but maybe his play in practice is so unconvincing that we're better off not seeing what Jimmer can do.
In Thibodeau's mind, he's probably competing with Augustin for minutes, and while D.J. has come back down to Earth some, I still trust him quite a bit more than Fredette. That said, Tony Snell hasn't done much of anything for Chicago this season, so I'd like to see Chicago go for more offense/ball handling/shooting with Fredette rather than more defense with Snell and see how it goes for a few minutes each night.
I'm hoping Chicago experiments with this look down the stretch when the opponents get easier, and the Bulls really have little to play for anyway.